Connections in chaos

Afternoon stroll in front of Hernán Cortés’ historical home, Coyoacan

Mexico City. Love it, hate it, run screaming into its maw, surrender to its frenzy.

It’s hard to be a fence-sitter when it comes to this place. There isn’t the time, and there certainly isn’t the space. From throwing yourself, literally, into the packed subway at rush hour, because that is the only way to get in, to being crushed against Metrobus doors so you are disgorged, lumpen, at the next station, fighting your way back in to get to where you’re going, this isn’t for those who demand personal space, or respect for his/her person at all. It is an eminently walkable city in terms of distance, shade and broad sidewalks, but having to battle the masses with elbows and knees every inch of the way is exhausting. Everyone is in a hurry, but the ones who are in the greatest rush move the slowest and get in the way, the most.  The air is so filled with dust that having to run for your train means those little particles rasp all the way into your bronchioli and are never quite expelled.

Big cities invoke a certain madness. I was born and raised in the tightly packed urban conglomeration that is Singapore, so this is not new to me. It has been half a lifetime since I was in a big city for this long though, and my available defenses are getting worn down; the eternal crowds are marching sans mercy, under my skin.

Yet there is so much about the federal capital of Mexico that is compelling.

I love that absolutely everything I’ve eaten here is delicious, even if I can’t name or identify it, which happens too frequently! The public transport system is brilliant, crowds notwithstanding. I love that the people here are so very warm; this is especially appreciated when one is sick, as I have been over the past fortnight. That art and expression seem to live everywhere I look, even in the most mundane of corners. I love that the streets are a riot of variety, a street photographer’s dream. That ancient history is inevitably embedded in the present. That everyone I have spoken with, gives life to their personal stories in the most sublime way. I assume this has something to do with the thought process of those who speak Spanish natively; i guess it’s called a romance language for good reason?

But the best part, is experiencing the magic of Mexico City through four people who have opened their lives to me – a writer, a photographer, an artist (who also happens to be teaching me Spanish, poor bugger) and a free spirit. They’ve allowed me to see Mexico City in all its grit and glory, through their eyes. I have staggered home at night, reeling from the conversations of the day in the best way possible, mindblown that someone took a few hours to talk me through thirty years of their life’s work in a way that I would understand, or shared a wrenching story of lost love, or sit in a library with me half the day, lost in conversation.

Connection is a powerful, sacred thing.

When I do finally leave Mexico City, I will have been here for eight weeks, and have seen less of the city than most people who come here for two. But I will have experienced it to a depth I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to, because of four kindred spirits I managed to find (or, who found me) in a roiling sea of 24 million.

Incredible serendipity. And so precious.

My greatest thanks to Mauricio, Pablo, Karlos and David for being a part of my journey.









  1. Mark Olwick says:

    Great to hear, Charlene. I’d love to taste some of that amazing food!

    1. charlene says:

      Every meal is immensely satisfying, even on my budget. You have to visit soon!

  2. I really enjoy your writing, even and especially as it shows that you’re battling the currents. Of the photos I particularly enjoyed the one with the tree in front of the house with the shadow of its branches looking so much more gnarled and organically twisted than the actual branches, and the one with the girl (I can only assume) on her father’s shoulders. They both give a nice sense of place, even if in very different ways.

    1. charlene says:

      Thanks Thomas. Yep, having removed myself almost entirely from my comfort zone, every day contains new discoveries. Some are great, some, not so much, and some are downright horrible. All part of the journey though, one that I am in general, very glad to be on.

      Mexico City is a brilliant place to shoot street. There is always so much happening everywhere, all the time!

  3. Charlene,

    He leído con interés tus reflexiones y visto con grata sorpresa las imágenes que armonizan tus pensamientos en efecto, México es un país social y cultural muy complejo del cual no siempre se sale ileso, tú has logrado captar con sensibilidad y acierto algo de este paraíso infernal, lugar que Malcom Lowry llamaba “Metáfora de la Vida”. Felicitaciones y suerte en este interminable viaje interior.


    1. charlene says:

      Pablo, paraiso infernal eh? Mexico es muy complejo, pero, o porque de lo, muy hermoso tambien. Puedo la viva entera…er, exploring it, and no entiendo realmente, creo. Ay, me Espanol es muy malo, pero estoy practicando! Muchisisimas gracias amigo, Te lo agradezco :)

  4. artemiswins says:

    Oh the city. Having never known one, and knowing that I should get to know one, I jumped into Buenos Aires, which has similar anti-personal-space laws and an equally incredible food selection, but from the sound of it, a little more relaxed, a little less elbows-on-the-streets. But still for me quite overwhelming, (damn the air pollution) and I find myself jumping from plaza to plaza for the space and (illusion of) fresh air they provide.

    But all of the redeeming qualities that you described are so true, incredible amounts of culture and history. So many things have happened on every square foot of this massive establishment. Makes me feel tiny, cue the existentialist agony. But also comforting, something nice about being part of a school of fish.

    And the people you meet, the ones you get to know. For me it’s a waiter down the street; a florist on Santa Fe, my host-brother-surfer, and my professors…
    :) keep travelling

    1. charlene says:

      Very brave of you to throw yourself head first and live in Buenos Aires, and you have articulated it all, exactly right. I don’t see myself ever willingly living in Mexico City. Two months there and I was dreading exiting the door of my room when I had to. But I’ve lived in cities all my life, and I guess I’m more worn from this than I have any right to be, seeing how I should be completely used to such things.

      I will be travelling for a while yet, and ambling while I am at it. I hope you continue doing the same :)

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